The Olympic game
As China prepares to host the Olympics, its sore relations with the exiled Tibetan government came to the fore. Yet Chinese Ambassador to Malta CHAI XI was quick to accept an interview request from The Sunday Times.
The run-up to the Beijing 2008 Olympics should have been about showcasing the 'New China' to the world. But after the March 14 riots in the Tibetan capital of Lhasa, it has so far shown what many feel is wrong with the Red Giant.
The protests were some of the most violent clashes in the region following the invasion of Tibet by the Red Guards in 1958 and since the infamous crackdown of the late 1980s. Some 18 'innocent people' or '99 protesters' have been killed, depending on whether you chose to believe the figures of the Chinese government or Tibetan exile groups.
Whatever the case, the events of March 14 raised a cloud of protest over the Games which is unlikely to lift quickly, to the detrement of the Chinese goal to have the world "share its dream".
James Miles, The Economist China correspondent, who was recently given access to the region following the riots, admitted that the freedom he was given was remarkable "given that the authorities are normally extremely sensitive about the presence of foreign journalists when this kind of incident occurs".
The visit showed the scale of the violence - something which the Chinese authorities were at pains to highlight - however, Mills stressed in an interview he gave to CNN, that the imperative behind allowing journalists was the run-up to the Beijing games.
Clearly China has been going out of its way to try and show the world it is opening up. And the willingness of the Ambassador to Malta Chai Xi to speak about recent events probably comes in that vein; nonetheless the issue remains very much a sore one.
"Some of the foreign countries commenting on the incident seem to forget a crucial point, which is that the issue is not relating to cultural affairs or human rights or religious issues but is a political issue," he says when asked how China feels about the reaction of a number of Western states to the riot.
"They are talking about human rights, stability and the respect of the Tibetan religion. These should be respected... but the Tibet issue relates to the conflict between the central government and the so-called Tibetan government in exile, headed by the Dalai Lama - essentially, a conflict between the unification of the motherland and the separation of China."
He even goes as far as to snub the leaders who indicated they might boycott the games. "This is a world major event. We welcome other state leaders to come and observe this opening ceremony, but we don't care if they don't come and, if they boycott it on the basis of the incident in Lhasa, that is wrong. This is against the charter and the spirit of the Olympic Games and you should not politicise the Games."
When I turn to the core issue, about the human rights dimension of the Tibet protests, however, Mr Chai is less spontaneous and draws on a written statement with a set of prepared answers to my presumed questions: "The old Tibet before 1959 was a feudal serfdom which practised theocracy, practised by Monks and nobles, which is no less dark, backward and barbarous than that in medieval Europe. So I will say that Dalai was the chief theocrat in old Tibet."
The economy in Tibet was stagnant and the life expectancy just over 35 before 1995, he went on to explain, making the point that these were the dire conditions this population lived in - and these were not highlighted by the Western media.
"Today, people in Tibet enjoy a much better life and extensive human rights. In the past five years alone, the State has financed around RMB (People's Currency) 94.7 billion (€8.54b) in development funds. Tibet is witnessing rapid development and this contributes to the general well-being of the people," he continued, stressing that the Cultural Revolution had improved the situation for Tibetans across the board.
Still, China is accused of widespread human rights abuses, particularly against minority groups such as the Falun Gong which has been deemed by the Chinese government as subversive.
Again, he insists that China has made significant progress on human rights issues, pointing out anti-child-labour initiatives and, soon, the ratification of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights - a United Nations treaty based on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
However, when pressed on the Falun Gong issue, he says: "Personally I know the background of Li Hongzhi (leader and founder of the Falun Gong)... He portrays himself as having the ability to take serious practitioners, who forget everything, even their family, and practise with their whole soul, to the other world, you know, paradise...
"Many practitioners actually did it, they forgot everything and did nothing but practise, and sometimes there were even criminal cases of these sort of practitioners who murder their family to take them to the afterlife... This is not at all acceptable, this is not progressive, not a religion or a peaceful organisation because it is very harmful to society..."
That was why it was declared a sect and outlawed, he continued, not reacting however, when faced with the fact that there were no reports on Falun Gong affiliates doing such things outside China.
In effect, a large part of the problem is that the information concerning China's human rights record, either comes from people claiming to be victims, or agencies sympathetic to them or the state-owned media which drum up the official position. In the Tibet riots case, one of the Chinese government's first moves was to block out foreign media.
"During that abnormal period of time, you've got to control the situation. Later, in fact, the concerned department did organise trips for foreign journalists to go to Lhasa and see for themselves. They could interview anyone they wanted in Lhasa. Even diplomats were invited to go."
But how will the government handle the international press corps that will descend in Beijing if its idea of independent media coverage of such events are controlled visits?
"Well, you're wrong there, its free... we have recently issued a sort of regulations for the foreign media, mainly for interviews. If anyone has agreed to an interview then you have the right to interview anybody. It's quite open.
And people in China, as I know, are encouraged to give interviews to the media. We have nothing to hide, especially on these games or some unpleasant issues.
"But on the Tibet issue, I agree with you, it was controlled. You're right in one sense... I think with regard to the direct coverage of the event by foreign media we can learn from the experience of such an event.
One would imagine that the riots and the ensuing reaction in the West have created an opportunity to mend relations with the Tibetans in exile. Originally the Dalai Lama, who fled Tibet to set up his government in exile in Dharamsala, Northern India, said he was fighting for independence. However, since the 1980s he has developed something he calls the 'middle way' or 'genuine autonomy' from China's central government. So why is China refusing to meet the Dalai Lama?
"The Chinese government has had a consistent stand on this," he insists, explaining that since 1979, shortly before riots similar to those of March 14 broke out in Tibet, there have been some 20 batches of visitors sent by the Dalai Lama. "Since 2002, we had six rounds of talks but none of them was productive," Mr Chai says.
"Our door remains open," he continues, reading again from his prepared statement, "but we have to learn not only what the Dalai Lama says but also what he does.
As long as the Dalai side stops its activities to split China, and stops its activities scheming and inciting violence and stops sabotaging the Beijing Olympic Games, the central government will be willing to continue dialogue, any time."
Even though the Dalai Lama's called on protesters in Tibet to end the violence, the Chinese insisted from the start that he was behind the protests and aggression. But where is the evidence of this?
"It is no coincidence that the incident in Tibet and neighbouring provinces and attacks against the Chinese diplomatic missions in Europe happened simultaneously. A number of major criminal cases have revealed links and showed that it is a vital part of the Tibetan People's Movement organised by the Dalai clique and the Tibetan Youth Congress. In visits last year in North-America and Europe, the Dalai Lama said, and I quote, that "the Beijing Olympics might be the last chance for Tibet's independence..."
Surely that is not enough to sustain the conspiracy theory though?
"You will get more (evidence)," he reacts, as his aide promises to provide a couple of DVDs, which turn out to be footage from the state-owned CCTV newscaster, showing the protesters, even monks, running a violent riot, presumably in Lhasa.
A number of those arrested, confessed, he continued, raising the question of whether their statements were taken under duress. It has been suggested that the only way out is for negotiations to take place under the watchful eye of an arbiter chosen by both parties. But this seems to strike a raw nerve:
"No, that is not acceptable. As I said to you, this is an internal issue. This is a question of sovereignty and the integrity of our territory. It's a conflict between the Dalai clique and the central government regarding the split of Tibet from the motherland. We are ready to talk to them but they have to stop this activity.
So what happens if the situation gets worse because of the protests?
"I believe that the countries which will be receiving the Olympic flame will be more cautious. We can see that these activities that have taken place in London and Paris are (decreasing) in other countries. And it was quite a smooth relay in Pakistan, India, Thailand... I am quite optimistic that this protest will die down."
In the end, however, the issue remains on the agenda of a number of countries and organisations, not least the European Union. What happens if Malta joins a declaration criticising China? "China has had relations with the EU for the past 30 years and they have been enhanced day by day. It is our hope that since we have this relationship at this crucial period of time the EU should not do anything to harm the relations and not to take any action or solution that send the wrong signal to the Dalai clique.
"Malta is one of the most friendly countries to China in the EU," he continues. "We have high hopes on Malta playing a positive role in the debate and whenever this issue is raised.
"But I'll tell you very frankly," he finishes off as the interview comes to a natural end, since this is our internal affair we don't like to see the EU have this issue on any formal agenda of any meetings."